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Potential extension of Hawaii homeless program being considered by lawmakers

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / 2019
                                The Kumuwai residences in McCully used 20 housing vouchers provided by the state’s Ohana Zone funding. The project was developed by the city for chronically homeless kupuna, those considered at risk of falling into homelessness and those who earn 50% of area median income or below.

    STAR-ADVERTISER / 2019

    The Kumuwai residences in McCully used 20 housing vouchers provided by the state’s Ohana Zone funding. The project was developed by the city for chronically homeless kupuna, those considered at risk of falling into homelessness and those who earn 50% of area median income or below.

Gov. David Ige’s administration is considering a proposal to ask state lawmakers to continue a pilot program tailored to create solutions for homelessness that’s set to expire in 2023.

Enacted in 2018, state legislation requires the creation of a minimum of six Ohana Zone program projects — three on Oahu and one each on Kauai, Maui and Hawaii island. The state has exceeded the requirement, creating 20 projects that provide both permanent housing and increased shelter capacity, said Scott Morishige, the state’s coordinator on homelessness.

During a joint state Senate and House committee informational briefing Monday, Morishige said, “The administration is potentially looking at a legislative proposal for the upcoming session to ask for the continuation of the Ohana Zones program, and possibly additional funding to support certain programs for which other federal funds can’t be identified.”

After the initial legislation appropriated $30 million for the projects, in 2019 another piece of legislation was passed that added another $2 million.

An Ohana Zone is defined as a “program to address basic needs of individuals experiencing homelessness and where wraparound services, social and health care services, transportation, and other services may be offered with the goals of alleviating poverty and transitioning individuals experiencing homelessness into affordable housing.”

Morishige explained that the definition is purposefully broad to allow a range of projects that can be tailored to individual community needs.

Among the projects using Ohana Zone funding: the Oahu Homeless Outreach and Navigation for Unsheltered Persons, which utilizes tent structures as emergency shelter space; Hale Hanakahi Emergency Shelter, which features tiny homes — 10-by-8-foot units furnished with bed linens and various basic necessities — in East Hilo; and a long-term apartment rental housing project, Kealaula on Pua Loke, on Kauai.

As of Sept. 30, Ohana Zone funding has added 469 beds or units to the statewide homeless service system and preserved 358 beds or units that would likely have been lost due to repair-related problems or property vacancies.

So far, the state has tapped about $20.8 million of the allotted funding, with the Ohana Zone projects serving 5,067 homeless individuals — and placing 1,129 into permanent housing.

Several of the program’s leaders tasked with navigating permitting issues maintained that the state should look into creating exemptions or fast-track paths that would make it easier to finish Ohana Zone projects, such as by addressing permitting concurrently rather than in phases.

“The more challenging aspect … for some of the projects, I think people are hoping for an exemption from the environmental assessment or EIS (environmental impact statement requirement). … I think that merits further discussion,” Morishige said.

“Those provisions are there for a reason. And think that we need to be careful when looking at longer terms of exemptions for that, but I think if we could look at it … similar to how for affordable housing there’s a process to expedite certain types of developments — I think that’s something worth considering.”

Officials in charge of addressing housing issues who presented at the meeting also all emphasized a need for more supportive forms of housing for people in need of substance abuse treatment and mental health services, and those exiting the criminal justice system.

“I think one of the biggest gaps is we need more housing for people coming out of homelessness, specifically supportive housing, not only for people directly coming out of homelessness, but I think there’s a need to look at supportive housing for people coming out of other systems,” Morishige said.

State Sen. Joy San Buena­ventura, who represents Hawaii island’s Puna district and serves as chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Human Services, cautioned against expecting the state to continue to fund the Ohana Zone projects past the scheduled endpoint. “We weren’t going to fund this forever,” she said.

“That’s why it’s a pilot project. … The whole idea of Ohana Zones was to create the infrastructure so that we can get federal funding later on that could qualify for HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding). I’m hoping that you folks look at that by 2023.”

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